Farewell, my lovely: Victoria Summerley bids farewell to her beloved London plot
Victoria's garden has been a labour of love for 10 years – and it's packed with memories. Now it is time to part ways. But just how to say goodbye?
"You'll need two trucks," said Greg, the removals expert. "One for the garden, one for the house." I'm moving to Gloucestershire, to enjoy what I hope will be a life of idyllic rurality. Technically, I'm downsizing, but while the thought of ridding myself of various bits of unwanted furniture presents no problems at all (a quick group e-mail round the office should sort it), moving the garden is a nightmare.
The first problem is that my garden has lots of containers. Big containers. My husband used to say that I should apply for a Guinness World Record for the number of containers in one London garden, but he was exaggerating. There are only about 60 pots. Last time I looked, anyway.
The second problem is that my old garden is very different from my new plot. My garden in south London is full of sub-tropical plants – tetrapanax, hardy bananas, cannas, palms of various kinds. My summer bedding consists of species most people regard as houseplants: echeveria, sansevieria (mother-in-law's tongue) and chlorophytum (spider plants).
The garden faces south-west and is sheltered by a belt of mature trees along the left-hand side, so the result is a micro-climate that is several degrees warmer than even the central London average.
The house in Gloucestershire, by contrast, is on a hill, with the sort of bucolic vistas that costume dramas love to feature. Rather than trying to create an urban oasis, as I have in Wandsworth, where the garden is a lush, leafy retreat from the rigours of city life, the new garden is a blank slate (albeit a blank slate covered in ground elder).
It demands planting that echoes the billows and curves of the surrounding landscape: clumps of soft grasses and prairie-style perennials, punctuated perhaps by mounds of box and columnar yews, that will recreate the shapes of the trees and hedgerows while softening the square lines of the old stone house and its lichen-encrusted terrace.
Of course, I will miss some of my plants. The massive Phormium tenax (memorably described by Anna Pavord as the biggest phormium in the world), the rare Montezuma pine, the tree ferns, and the trumpet vine, Campsis radicans, that bursts into orange flower right at the end of the summer, as if it's just looked at its watch and realised what the time is. All these have become old friends.
I'll take some cuttings of plants that I'm particularly fond of, or that are currently hard to find. I have a hardy fuchsia, for example, with brilliant chartreuse leaves and tiny pale pink flowers. It's supposed to be 'Sharpitor', but I've never found anything labelled 'Sharpitor' that looks like it. And I'll chop off a couple of bits of Geranium macrorrhizum 'Album', which is not only tolerant of dry shade, but helps to blot out weeds. It came with me from my last garden.
I'm not going to start digging up the whole garden, though – to me, that's the sort of behaviour that is on a par with vendors who remove the lightbulbs. And many of the specimens will not survive the winter on a Gloucestershire hilltop. I hate the idea of them turning up their toes just because I'm feeling sentimental.
On the other hand, I do want to take quite a few things. I want to take my smaller Montezuma pine, for example, which is in a pot and the size of a small horse, and the two azaleas (Rhododendron 'Daviesii') whose creamy flowers smell so ravishing in late spring. And my cannas, of course, and the big terracotta urns my late husband bought me for my birthday one year. And the dwarf pine I rescued from an old conifer nursery.
Even so, two trucks. Really? Let's see – there is the salvaged water tank which I use as a water feature, the two benches, the bird table, the big table and chairs, the little table and chairs, and the faux wicker chairs thatf are in a shady spot just in case the rest of the garden gets too hot on a sunny summer day.
Oh, and the steamer chairs, and the low wooden tables from Ikea which I bought to put my cup of tea on while I read a book, but which are now covered in pots (because I rarely get the time to sit down and drink a cup of tea, let alone read a book). And the lawnmower, and the contents of the tool shed, and the barbecue, and the shredder, and the £15 gazebo from Asda that is so useful if you have people round and it starts to rain.
Yes, I'm beginning to see Greg's point – and I haven't even added in the wheelbarrow, and the seed trays, and the hosepipes… and… and…
People keep asking me how I can bear to leave the garden on which I have lavished so much tender care for 10 years. The awful truth is that, from a horticultural point of view, I'm getting slightly bored with it. I want to try out new ideas, a new aspect, new challenges. The thought of a new garden is tremendously exciting.
Friends are also astonished that I am going to entrust all this to Greg and his team. I know, however, that you cannot leave something that has been created with so much love without a memory tripping you up before you have got out of the gate. Every time I look at our pond (which started out as a raised vegetable bed), I can remember my husband saying: "One of your better ideas, Victoria!". He used to tease me about my habit of standing stock still in the middle of the lawn while trying to solve the problem of what to plant in a tricky corner, or work out how to re-jig a border. (I used to retort that gardens are as much about looking as they are about growing.)
My husband died of cancer four years ago, but sometimes, as I straighten up, smeared with dirt, from a spot of weeding, I half expect to see him smiling at me from his favourite seat in the sun, our old cat basking on his lap. I miss the little tour of inspection he would make at the end of the day to see what progress I had made.
The children have also contributed their share of memories, from primary-school age birthday parties and tented sleepovers to more sophisticated social events involving beer, burgers and lots of teenagers. They've departed for university now, rejoicing in their new status as undergraduate and postgraduate, but even now, as I look around, I remember that the climbing frame used to be in that corner, while the trampoline was over here, and how we all went through a Swingball craze in the hot summer of 2003.
Perhaps that is why, in a way, it will be a relief to leave the garden. I find myself looking back, rather than forward. It makes me too aware of the fact that I still live a kind of half-life, and of the Craig-shaped hole where my husband used to be.
The garden has been therapeutic too, though. I open for charity each year, under the National Gardens Scheme, and that has meant I've had to keep to my August open day deadline instead of letting the whole thing slide. It has also been the inspiration for my blog, Victoria's Backyard, which in turn has inspired me to write more about gardening.
Ironically, that is what has finally persuaded me to leave London. I want to write more, to garden more, to feel more excited about the future and less wistful about the past. Bring on those two trucks.
Victoria Summerley's blog is at victoriasbackyard.co.uk
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